*EPOV*

I had almost hoped that Alice would tell me that she saw Bella's future disappear so that I could step in and stop her from doing whatever potentially hazardous thing she was scheming, like riding motorcycles with werewolves.

If that were the case, I wouldn't have to make excuses for my embarrassing, stalkerish tendencies that fuelled my need to know where Bella was, what she was doing, who she was with, and if I had my way, what she was thinking.

Alice's reassurance was comforting, though she was keeping something from me. Protecting Bella's privacy, I suspected. She showed me Bella's future, clear as ever. I saw myself playfully chasing a laughing, crimson-eyed goddess through the forest at vampire speed.

But Bella had never asked me to stay away before, and I couldn't help but feel like something was off. I didn't have any reason to doubt her. Her heartbeat was steady when she told me she wanted to spend time with Charlie. And she was such a horrible liar, that I would know instantly if she wasn't being honest with me.

But even vampires had insecurities, and true to my nature, the worst of them played through my mind.

I imagined her welcoming the mongrel and his father over for Charlie's birthday dinner. With extreme jealousy, I thought of Jacob being able to do the most basic human act-sharing a meal with my Bella. Being human and natural with my Bella. Adding insult to injury, Charlie loving and accepting the mutt, wanting Jacob for his daughter while he barely tolerated me. Not that I could blame him.

Someday Bella would get tired of defending me to her father. She'd realize the future Jacob could give her, and how naturally and seamlessly he already fit into her life. She'd get tired of how difficult and dangerous it always was for us to be together, and then she'd choose him. And I wouldn't be able to blame her for it either.

Part of me, a very small part, wanted that life for her. It's why I left to begin with. It was the right thing, what nature had intended. But if I learned anything from our hellish separation, it was that I was too weak to be away from her.

And selfishly, so selfishly, I chose to stay with her forever, or until she sent me away, whichever came first. I could only hope that when that day came, if she ever outgrew me, that she wouldn't regret the time she squandered on a soulless, unchanging, murderous monster such as myself, I thought morosely.

No matter how much she told me that she was ready for her life to end, ready to spend eternity with me as a blood-thirsty monster frozen in time (heart beating or no, I could never view her as soulless), I felt she was being naive and shortsighted about the things she would want later in life that I couldn't give her.

The idea of Bella someday being bitter and resentful about not being able to bear children, like Rose and even Esme to a lesser extent, made my cold, dead heart want to start beating just so it could wither inside me and die all over again. How could I do that to her just so that I'd never have to lose her? It would be the most selfish thing I'd ever do, even if I lived...existed a thousand years.

The very thought of her blaming me for that was my greatest fear...well, second greatest fear. I shuddered at the all-too-vivid memory of Rosalie telling me that my Bella had committed suicide. Knowing that it had been all my fault.

I may not be able to sleep or dream, but Alice's vision of Bella jumping to her death played like a silent film behind my eyelids whenever I closed my eyes. But I digress.

I knew better than to make any decisions one way or the other about changing Bella unless I wanted to feel the wrath of my clairvoyant sister. So I found myself biding my time, hoping to draw out Bella long enough that she'd change her mind, or at least decide to stay human for as long as possible. We'd figure out a way around the Volturi, I was certain of that.

It was early Saturday morning, and I was debating with myself whether or not to go make sure Bella was safe (which to some, might've looked like me spying on her.) I was sitting in the driver's seat of my Volvo, so it was pretty clear which side of things was winning out.

This is wrong, I reproached myself.

I know, I agreed. She'll forgive me.

She is safe in her home with her father. Her future is accounted for. She doesn't need your protection.

She always needs my protection, I snarled back at my conscience.

Bella was like my drug, and I was in serious withdrawal. Addicts in withdrawal are known to lie, steal, do whatever necessary to get their fix, and I was no exception. I internally fought with my more rational self.

She deserves privacy.

She should get used to a lack of privacy if she's so committed to spending an eternity in a family of gifted vampires, I rationalized.

If she wants to see Jacob, you should let her. He's better for her.

She's mine! I growled, my hands gripping the wheel so tightly that a perfect impression of the inside of my fists was cast into the vinyl of the steering wheel. I would need to ask Rose to replace it before I parked this car anywhere within public view.

She asked for time alone with her father. You should respect that.

"I can't be away from her," I whispered out loud, defeated. The decision had been made, and I could hear Alice tsk-ing at me in disapproval from somewhere in the house, not that she'd do anything to stop me.

'See for yourself, brother, but you are making a mistake,' Alice had warned silently as I floored it towards Bella's house.

I parked the Volvo on an old forgotten service road that ran along the backside of the woods that bordered the Swan residence. I ran the short distance through the old grove of towering western hemlocks while recalling the emotional conversation I'd had with Bella last night. It was certainly not the evening I'd had in mind for us.

Ever since we reunited after returning from Italy, her well-hidden and well-deserved doubt in me would occasionally make itself known, as was the case last night.

It was so unlike her to pick a fight with me, and I handled it all wrong. I was such a complete ass to turn my back on her and threaten to leave. I don't know what the hell I was thinking. Of course, that would trigger a panicked reaction out of her.

Her anxiety was misplaced, of course, because I could never leave her again; but it was going to take a lot more than words and a few short months to reassure her of that, much as she tried to convince me otherwise.

As if my all-consuming guilt wasn't comprehensive enough, she felt guilty for reminding me of the damage I caused her. I could see it in her eyes, and hear it in her flimsy attempt to equate her bravely sacrificing herself to save her mother with my abandoning her in these same woods, unknowingly leaving her to defend herself from a vengeful vampire, a pack of volatile werewolf pups, and her own self-destructive tendencies.

What had I done to this poor girl? More accurately, what hadn't I done to this girl? I was a 105-year old vampire stalking my 18-year old human fiancée from the branches of a tree like some lecherous creep. I sighed. Alice was right, of course. I shouldn't have come.

Just as I had made the decision to leave Bella to her "human weekend," the sliding door to the backyard opened, and Bella emerged into the early morning sunlight. The sight of her took my breath away, as it always did, so I suppose it was lucky that I didn't need to breathe.

I had been so busy castigating myself that I wasn't paying attention when she woke up and came downstairs. Some stalker I was turning out to be, I snorted.

But now my curiosity was piqued. What was she doing outside? This wasn't a normal part of her routine. And..what was she wearing? She appeared to be wearing yellow rubber kitchen gloves, the kind one used when washing dishes, pulled up over the long sleeves of her favorite ratty sweatshirt. She had the handle of a small basket looped over her right forearm.

I wanted so badly to leave, to give her the respect and privacy that she deserved, but now I was riveted and had to know what she was doing.

She walked to the eastern corner of the yard and shoved her gloved hands into the wild foliage that grew up the banks of a small creek that ran just on the other side of Charlie's property line. It finally dawned on me what she was doing.

She was...berry picking? Blackberries by the look of it. My eyes grew wide and I held my breath. Blackberry bushes were tangled masses of razor-sharp thorns poised to tear the delicate skin off my reason for existing. And these blackberry bushes were atop a semi-steep ravine perforated by jagged rocks and the splintered limbs of broken tree branches.

What could possibly go wrong? I thought to myself with mild panic.

I had to remind myself that I wasn't supposed to be here, wasn't supposed to be seeing this. It was becoming abundantly clear why Bella did not want me here for this. Was she afraid that I would harm her if I smelled her blood?

Knowing as well as I did about her complete lack of self-preservation instincts, I thought that that was maybe giving her too much credit.

No. Knowing Bella as well as I did, she probably didn't want to make me uncomfortable. I shook my head at the impossibility of a red-blooded human being considerate of a vampire's abominable needs. Only Bella.

I also reminded myself that whatever Alice saw of Bella's plans did not involve her getting hurt, or at least not significantly enough to tell me about, so I tried to quell the panic that arose at the first sight of the thorns biting into her yellow "armored" forearms and hands.

She was struggling, I could tell. The gloves were too large for hands, the rubber fingertips extending at least two inches beyond the tips of her little fingers. With the gloves on she had protection but no dexterity.

She sighed in frustration and resignation. Grabbing the fingertips of her right-hand glove, Bella yanked it completely off with an audible snap. She looked as if she was about to slap the bushes in the face and demand a duel.

Angry Kitten Bella was absolutely adorable. She gingerly reached her ungloved hand back into the razor-toothed bushes and began plucking berries one by one from the bush and dropping them into her basket.

Inevitably, I heard her gasp and yank her hand back from the bush that had bitten her. She put the punctured finger in her mouth and sucked on it for a moment to relieve the sting. I clenched my jaw shut, and sucked in a small tentative breath, to make absolutely certain that I would not be overcome by the scent of her blood in the air. Not surprisingly, the monster stayed firmly locked in his cage.

I smelled her more strongly than I had moments before, but it was bearable. I kept watching. More berries dropped into her basket, and she seemed to be getting into a rhythm.

With her gloved left hand, she'd hold a thorny vine, and with her right hand she would pluck off the berries and toss them into her basket, but every few minutes, she would gasp and stick a finger in her mouth. Once, she cursed softly to herself, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud or risk being discovered.

It was one of the most unusual experiences I'd ever encountered in my vampiric existence. Invariably, once human blood was spilled, the frenzied need to hunt would overcome the senses of even the most practiced "vegetarian" vampires, but this was different. The amount of her blood was so infinitesimal, it was like… somebody using an eyedropper to drip gasoline into a contained, smoldering fire.

And then, God help me, she popped one of the plump berries into her mouth, and I groaned at the sight of her licking the blood-red juice off her perfect lips. She let out a small moan of approval as she tasted her harvest. I nearly fell right out of my tree.

Maybe 'lecherous creep' wasn't so far off the mark, after all, I grimaced. If only Jasper could see me now, overwhelmingly jealous of a berry.

I waited for Bella to fill her basket and go back inside the house to make absolutely certain she wouldn't need rescuing before jumping down from my perch and heading back to my car.

Time for the lusty vampire to go home and take a cold shower while my favorite sister mentally snickered at my idiocy. It wasn't anything less than I deserved.